IMPULSE

Texts

IMPULSE

Marko Elsner Grošelj

PASSION AND THE BEAUTY OF PAINTING; A conversation with painter Herman Gvardjančič

Marko Elsner Grošelj

As you emerged from the Academy of Art in Ljubljana (1968), what were your expectations as a new artist? What were the conditions like for a painter in those far distant 60s? It is perhaps significant that you finished your studies in the year of student unrest, when the world appeared to be changing at lightning speed and taboos were being demolished; did all this have an effect on your art and the art of the day?

Herman Gvardjančič

Those were of course days that cannot be compared with the present. We lived under socialism, in a so-called self-governing state that I never claimed to understand. We were happy to accept the federation because it was sold to us busily in schools, in the media, at meetings, everywhere, at every step. And yet, I could not understand. Even as a child, I was an individualist, I wanted to work everything out for myself, explain it for myself. Those were the times of the Vietnam War, condemned by all us young. We also condemned the Americans; that goes without saying. I remember my first paintings were dedicated to the fighters for Hanoi. All our papers were full of photographs and commentaries from that country. But from the other side of the world, from America that was the attacker, also come the seductive sounds of Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller and, above all, from England, the unforgettable Beatles. All those feelings were hard to reconcile.

In Ljubljana, as you yourself indicated, there were frequent demonstrations. Of course we were there. All the time. And yet, I am still not sure what we were busy protesting against. Against the West, that I always felt close to, even as a young man, or against our own state, which, after all, was my country?

Some of the leaders are still now to be seen on high, at the top of the political hierarchy, of the left and of the right persuasion. Work that one out, if you can. Now I know that those were the sons of the then politicians. In the morning, the little darlings were busy “protesting”, while in the afternoon, daddy tried to limit the damage in front of various people. Thank God, politics always played second fiddle for me to painting. That was however the socio-political picture of the times when I was a student.

For me, an art student, the most important thing that I felt as being crucial was the birth of Pop-art in England and America. That was, in my opinion, without a doubt the most key shift in society, abroad and here as well. Events were coming fast and furious, in society, in art. So-called taboos were being destroyed every day. Even respected masters such as the painters Prof. G. Stupica and Prof. M. Pregelj were thrown. New artistic and societal alternative movements were being born. In fact there was lots of more or less blindly imported, fashionable imitation. Yet there was art being made even in those turbulent days. But that is how it is in every period.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

You finished your art studies under Prof. M. Sedej, then specialised under Prof. Z. Didek. Seeing you are now yourself teaching at the Academy, could you say how the teaching has changed in your time, are our times demanding different approaches, the attitude to the students- where is the difference? Also- what was your attitude to the teachers, were you stubborn or docile as student, were you only prepared to listen to technical instruction, were you already seeking your own expression? How are these things today, with today’s students?

Herman Gvardjančič

Our year was taught by Prof. M. Pregelj, who was then to take us all the way to our degree. Unfortunately, he died in my third year. I was shattered by his death. I still often think of him today. Pregelj was not only one of our best painters; he was also a personality, a man of huge knowledge. I really respected him. I liked him a lot.

My studies also brought me into contact with other teachers, for example Prof. G. Stupica, Prof. J. Čopič, Prof. F. Mihelič, Prof. S. Pengov, Prof. Omerza, etc. They each left their own imprint on me. The Academy was then of course quite a different thing from what it is today. With the exception of some, such as the above mentioned Stupica and Pregelj, they taught what amounted to the painter’s craft. You know- priming, glazing, perspective, etc. It was of course important to know all that; I am still grateful to my teachers for it. But we hardly got any further than that. I remember how the graphics teacher threatened to withhold his signature confirming my attendance because I decided to incorporate some of the Rembrandt graphic work into my own. And that was at the time when that kind of practice was commonplace in America with artists such as Rauschenberg, Warhol and others and had been for some years. I of course resisted but unfortunately eventually gave way. That is how at least some of us were finding our own way. I was rebellious and stubborn. I felt there were things going on in the world. Something new. And as I said, I was not the only one. There were quite a few of us in my year; we were positively competing with one another, to be the best.

I soon grasped the presence of other media, above all film – and photography which after all was no longer all that new then. But as soon I had adopted them, I also turned them down. It just wasn’t my thing. Where the sensuality of my hand becomes redundant, I lose all interest. That is how it was and that is how it still is today.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

What sort of influence does society, the change of regime, have on painting? Along with new media, of course, new approaches and technology? How does all that- competitiveness in society, a kind of depersonalisation, fudging or even cancelling of basic human values affect traditional painting? What kind of attitude do the young that you are now teaching have to traditional painting? Do all those negative kinds of assessment point to some way out, a shift in the art of painting; to put it simply, does traditional painting still have the inner strength to establish a positive relationship with the contemporary man and his being, or has it had its day and that is exactly the reason for its seeking new expressive possibilities?

Herman Gvardjančič

Every artist worth his salt will of course react to all that. That is the only way that art gets made. So- new media. O.K. What you must realise is that they are only tools with new potential, new effects, that the artist needs to make use of. And yet not just for effect, that is the least of it. What also needs to be done is to say something about the world, about man, the environment, the everyday that surrounds us- that is what really matters, don’t you agree? I am getting on a bit and I am of the opinion that art must touch human beings. Life, birth and death, these are at least for me eternal questions. Important themes that reach deep into the soul, into the heart. Without those deep feelings, I have nothing to say about myself or my surroundings, no matter how ‘clever’ it might sound. I refuse to be some sort of contemporary record maker. Some years ago I saw, I think it was at the Tate Gallery in London, a really good video; on all four walls of a large gallery space, about birth and death, film-video fashion. And yet I did not even notice the medium. I found myself in the midst of a majestic tale about life. Really, true art. That is how media go. The moment they are too much in evidence, the moment they become the be all and end all of the artist, then it ceases to be art. At least for me. These days, when for example everybody is tackling sociological and political themes, and the methods of tackling them are completely bonkers, anybody can be an artist. But that also means there is an awful lot of, let’s say it, of kitsch around, of rubbish. Don’t misunderstand me; there are also good things among all that.

To return to painting. Modernism, now on its way out, deconstructed the image. Completely. That is how it came to a void, but not to an end. All, but every single one of the historical styles is still present in the media today. They are part of our consciousness. So other media came on the scene, media you call contemporary. Look, a computer generated image can in no way supplant a traditional painting and that is after all not even its purpose. It can complement it, add to it. There are cases when somebody is incapable of expression and therefore resorts to drawing. Why do I say that? A painting and in particular a drawing quite simply cannot die. What will happen however is that they will be allotted another space which will probably no longer be the central one as it used to be, particularly during Modernism. What the future might hold for painting is of course pure speculation. The answer is: I do not know. And contemporary generations need to know that.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

Looking back on your artistic beginnings, would you have done things differently, is there perhaps something you would not have done, perhaps things you would have added or completely omitted? Or was your artistic path determined from the very beginning, which would have made the trajectory logical, rooted in the first stroke of the brush, the initial artistic act?

Herman Gvardjančič

I shall let others evaluate my path. All I can say is that all my youthful dreams were along the right lines, in spite of at times important disappointments. Today I know that art is something beautiful. I have seen some wonderful films, heard some marvellous music, not to mention the rest of the arts. The conclusion is that it was worth seeking the truth in painting as well. Today I am fully aware that no other thing would have brought me such fulfilment, such passion and beauty, as painting did. Even as a small boy I was longing for some sort of ideal, beauties, only that then, I could not find an explanation for all that. I had no idea why I was like that, a little different from my peers. I was a loner, a dreamer. Nobody could tell me why. My mother was uneducated, a factory worker. They killed my father before I was even born. I was always somewhere on the margins, never where things were happening. But do not get me wrong: that is where I felt most comfortable. I am no misanthrope, all the opposite, I love people. However, to go into my world of dreams, I cannot have noise, too much attention. That is, I hope, how my painting is as well.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

You were born at Reteče in 1943, in the area of Slovene Impressionism. Did this knowledge, this fact about Slovene painting have an effect on you when you first started?

Herman Gvardjančič

I came into contact with our Impressionists relatively early. Already in the 50s, my neighbour Anton Kos became the famous Ljubljana art dealer, his shop was in the covered passage under the Skyscraper in Ljubljana. That is where I saw lots of pictures even as a boy. He was a kind of mentor to me till I got to secondary school. I would also like to mention my teacher at the primary school at Reteče, Jože Zupančič who was one of the first to draw attention to my talent. He helped me a lot. He always went the extra mile for me; because of the way I was, I was otherwise a rather average pupil.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

Was perhaps Modernism then already so established in the artistic language of the day that you were entirely caught up in it when you started introducing your painting on large surfaces, rejecting abstraction and espousing landscape panting- a trait you still carry today?

Herman Gvardjančič

Up until my secondary school or even at the Academy, I only knew figuration. I did not have a clue about modernism, abstraction and the like; all that came during my studies at the Academy. True, abstraction is a very important chapter in painting, and yet I have never ever painted even a single abstract painting. There was a certain period when I got very near an abstract composition of my painting. The great styles in painting never held any attraction for me; I have always preferred to have my own secrets. I always stayed within the limits of figurative representation. I was full of various stories and impressions from my youth. And landscape was part of me, it still is. You can well believe me that I know the secrets of the soil better than any farmer. I speak and I paint only what I really know and feel.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

I can remember paintings such as The Swimming Pool and Figure in Landscape; in both, figures allow one to enter the space. Illusionism wins over flatness. As if you wanted to enter somewhere we haven’t been yet. That is also the impression given by your painting Road II where the figure disappears, making way for the Gleaming flat surface of the lake. It seems you used the figure as a way of entering nature, into land-scape, inside which Nature herself has opened up, in the sense that man is part of Nature and in fact carries her within, in his rational and his emotional self. What do you say?

Herman Gvardjančič

Studying at the Academy, then and also now, is based on the object, and above all on the figure, so we were all painting the figure, willy-nilly. That is how it should be. The human figure, man is after all the central preoccupation for the artist. In all arts. It always was and will be. That is how we started, myself included.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

We are still in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Critics often mentioned you in the same breath as Boris Jesih; he too painted landscapes, and yet his approach was different from yours, much more kitsch. His painting conveys a desire to please, while you kept your brushstroke under firmer control. Studious and perhaps even monotonous, cleansed of all narrative. Large painting surfaces on the one hand, and on the other, a gradual removal of figure and a crystallised and yet still flat landscape, with gleaming reflections of water.

Herman Gvardjančič

In my forty years of work, I have met many people, who became my friends. Boris Jesih was one of them. After we had completed our studies, we often exhibited together. Then, we were of one mind about a lot of things; later, we parted ideologically, but remained firm friends.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

In the early ‘80s, grass appears in your painting (Grasses I, acrylic on canvas, 1981); it seems to be an indeterminate, horrifying carpet, covering (hiding) its elemental dark force, the murky depths of the unexamined in man. Such is also the 1983 Landscape. What happened, or rather, what was beginning to change in your painting, to make you swap glistening water surfaces for the ‘crude’ weave of the earth, the landscape, grasses? The gesture became more forcible, deeper, carrying within it all the fatefulness of the world, a warning against something that is looming and may come about at any time. As if colour and landscape became concentrated in the belly of your gaze, feeling and thought, bringing forth an existential anxiety.

Herman Gvardjančič

The seed is to be found in the paintings you mention, Swimming Pool, Road, Figure in Nature. Landscape. I exhibited a series of those paintings in Atelje 70 at the Gallery of Modern Art in Ljubljana, alongside with works by Boris Jesih. I remember a murderous review published in the main newspaper Delo, penned by Janez Mesesnel. He carried on having sour things to say about me. At the same time, the younger critics and curators slowly started accepting the new idea of landscape, which in my case meant ‘pop-art’ landscape. It was flat and poster-like in its application of paint; it was that particular lack of sensuality that later led to a gradual ‘deepening’ of the picture.

It was then that a highly radical alternative group called OHO burst on the scene. To my taste, their art was far too sophisticated. Before you could view their installations, you had to work your way through notices, explanations, manifestos. No, that wasn’t for me. At the Gallery of Modern Art, abstraction ruled in the main. That left no place for me either. I was more interested in what I would call northern art, the Germans such as Anselm Kiefer, Walter Dahn, G. Baselitz and others. I only saw their works from this period some years later, but there was something special in them, something I too was seeking. That something was the narrative. The narrative about man.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

Alongside all those large or relatively large canvases, you were also making drawings, at least from the ‘80s on. They seem to be some sort of a personal diary of feelings and thoughts, observations and memory, reminiscences. What meaning do those drawings hold for you? Are those drawings some sort of parallel preparation for the large canvases, a painter’s warehouse of ideas or are they sketches that are meant to take the weight off the work in hand, so to speak? Can one look for an artistic message in them, an idea/ motif that follows the demands of a painted image, a landscape?

Herman Gvardjančič

Well, drawing is essential in art. Without it nothing is possible. The painter’s ‘physiognomy’ is first and foremost perceived through a drawing. A painter thinks by doing drawing. Historically, the most famous example of this must be Leonardo da Vinci. He keeps clearing things up through drawing. The same goes of course for other painters as well; it is a question of shaping and reshaping.

For me, a canvas is like a large screen, demanding a great deal of concentration, of paring down, seeing that the very size has a monumental effect on the viewer. All that is easier to achieve on a smaller scale. A drawing is also a more sensitive record. The hand-base contact is more immediate, I could say more intimate. I rate sensuality highly in a work of art; a drawing makes this easier to achieve and is more immediate. I have made hundreds of drawings. I think I like drawing best of all. A contemporary drawing is multi-layered. There are times it can be a mere record of a piece of information, then it can be a sketch, or just a hand exercise. What I like best is a finished drawing, a complete work.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

In 1983, there was a suicide in your vicinity. The same year saw a painting called The Probable Site of Suicide. It seems significant that the site is put under a question mark, that you posit it as probable but not certain. You have made it universal, generalised, all-encompassing. One could say you have made it artistically conscious, you shone light on it, on the hidden pain, on suicide as a warning, a howl of humanity, in fact a cry for help. What are your thoughts?

Herman Gvardjančič

I think you have put it so well I have little to add. That was a long period of suffering. And, as if that wasn’t enough, some years before, there was a similar case, only even more cruel, at Peračica in Upper Carniola. A mother, out of revenge and powerlessness, threw her two little children over a precipice and then jumped herself. How is one to react?! Sometimes, this world is really cruel.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

From that point on, a house appears in your landscapes, with sad windows, lonely looking. The windows seem like large, questioning eyes full of anxiety. The house becomes the ever increasingly anonymous space for people, ever more symbolic. The symbol of suffering that the house has absorbed, thus becoming like people. It too is a living thing, carrying memory within. The house as you paint it represents the state of the soul of man, pared down to the artistic core, without superfluous literary metaphor. Would you agree that all of the painting’s potential comes from the painter’s inner strength, his self-questioning, his seeking for truth, beauty and love? This relationship reveals the ethos of being, regardless of the pain that such examination can cause? (If I may add, this is not to do with so-called interpretation of truth, but the very core, perceived under the palimpsest of various truths.)

You have formulated the last two questions admirably. When I find myself in those existential situations, I often ask myself if what I am doing is painting at all. Why translate all this pain into painting? All that at the time of such superficiality in painting. Somehow bright. Unproblematic. Am I only a recorder of human drama? What kind of problems do I think I am solving at all? Perhaps none. But that is how I am and how I will remain. That may be why I was put on this earth. When I think of Tarkovsky and the recently deceased Bergman, two unforgettable recorders of human tragedy, I know that it is possible to make a work of art out of such material.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

What I am feeling toward is whether this motif of the house has played itself out, pointed you in different directions, made you try to paint the unpainted? Or put a different way, did the face of the house unveil a space hitherto unperceived? Did its face come to represent you as a painter? What direction are you following, what hidden corners are you exploring, in your attempt to establish a relationship between the interior gaze and what is seen?

Herman Gvardjančič

I have a poor opinion about the future of our civilisation. We are becoming unsated, overfed egotists. I have been saying this for a long long time, long before the various alternative and ecological movements: what we are doing is leading nowhere but into a total disintegration of society. Into self destruction. Just look how we are destroying our environment. And that in spite of the fact that we know it is the only thing we have. Natural disasters, societal and political elbowing, all this is going to get worse. It may sound paradoxical but Al Quaeda is only and alas a very negative attempt to halt the negative way the world is going, with another, countering, negative process. What is to follow? Conflict after conflict. A good friend of mine is fond of saying: “This world is under a spell”. And I agree. Who is going to stop all this? Nobody! Yes, I am a pessimist. I do still carry a glimmer of light within, but I need that to survive. I had to answer this way, to make you understand the situation I find myself in. Of course I carry on with my painting, but the stories go on. Only, they are ever more dramatic. They are getting ever darker. My last series of painting is called Dusk is Falling.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

You will be 65 next year and that is in a way unrepeatable. All that remains are paintings and your witness, the writing in the catalogue. Will this be an event celebrated across Slovenia, a survey of your work so far, therefore a retrospective exhibition or rather exhibitions? In what way are you getting ready for this, or rather, can we look forward to new works we haven’t seen before, or will this be an accentuation, a deepening and a synthesis of your artistic path so far?

It will be far from a pan-Slovene event. I wouldn’t even want that. Slovenia is rich enough in important and good painters who deserve that kind of accolade. All I want is to see all my work as a whole and ‘from a distance’. That I really do look forward to. It has been a while since my major retrospective at the Gallery of Modern Art in 1988 and a major exhibition of drawings at the International Graphic Centre in 1998. There have been some new works since. In any case, nobody has ever seen some two thirds of my work, except for myself.

Marko Elsner Grošelj

I would love to know what your attitude, born of years of experience, is to a relatively simple question: what kind of work is painting, what does it take out of you, what would your advice be to potential painters or rather, what do you say to your students at the Academy?

Herman Gvardjančič

Being a painter is a way of life. I think it’s the same in all arts. You share your every day with painting, and painting is with you every day. Nice, isn’t it? But it can be very exhausting. Particularly for the people around you. They can accept you, but they find it hard to understand. From the first day after graduating I have always been a teacher. My advice has always been: if you cannot cope, you are better off out of it.